NEW YORK — It's nearly nine o'clock on a Friday night, and Juliette Lewis is dashing to her second movie theater of the evening, preparing for another Q&A about Conviction, which stars Hilary Swank but is garnering Lewis a considerable amount of acclaim.
Due to a timing mix-up, some theatergoers already have started to leave when she arrives, and by the time Lewis starts to take questions about her brief but gripping role as a woman who wrongly sends a man to prison, the theater is about half-full. Yet Lewis takes question after question and talks with fans who come up to her afterward to get a closer look at the star, who is dressed casually in a black jacket and jeans.
Surely, there are more exciting things to do on a Friday night in New York City. But Lewis doesn't mind. After a nearly five-year break from appearing in films, the 37-year-old actor is savoring every moment in the spotlight, especially with very early Oscar buzz for Conviction.
“With this movie, I'm kind of having the time of my life in that I never expected the reception I've been getting for my role, never,” says Lewis, while riding in the back of a Cadillac Escalade that is ferrying her around the city. “Everything about it has been a joy.”
She's had a similar kind of joy about her re-emergence in Hollywood after abandoning films to concentrate on a rock career that is now respected and thriving. Lewis, whose celebrated acting career includes an Oscar nomination for 1991's Cape Fear when she was just a teen and seminal roles in movies such as Natural Born Killers — decided in 2003 that she wanted to do more than just dabble in music.
Unlike most actors who moonlight as musicians but don't give up their day jobs, Lewis did just that, dropping out of acting to tour with her band, Juliette and the Licks, with their thrashing, aggressive brand of rock.
“It's sort of when I decide to do something, I'm gonna do it all the way,” Lewis says “In my head, in my creative heart, I wouldn't have been able to do both.”
While her decision was greeted with derision in some circles, she proved her mettle by immersing herself in the life of a musician, not only playing overseas and at rock festivals like Lollapalooza, but also in small clubs and hipster venues.
“In the beginning, they're just curious,” she says, laughing. “So the expectations are really low. So that was great for me. But then after that you get the people who are really digging what you're doing and your music.”
She released two albums, wrote songs and collaborated with rockers like Dave Grohl.
She earned respect from fellow musicians and fans alike, even though she still smarts about that snarky album review from a certain magazine that belittled her going from acting to singing.
Ironically, just when she was getting more established in the music world, she underwent another transition, disbanding her initial band and forming another while putting out a solo record. Then, as she was working on her last record, “Terra Incognita,” released in 2009, acting began to pull at her when Drew Barrymore offered her a starring role in Whip It, Barrymore's directorial debut, about the rough-and-tumble world of female roller-derby players.
Feeling confident of her footing in the music arena, Lewis felt comfortable in stepping away for a return to movies.
She also missed acting.
“I'm in my 30s; I'm not done. I don't want my best work to be behind me in my 20s. I feel like this is a new chapter,” Lewis says with her always-intense gaze. “I have more life experience, I have more confidence in what I'm doing, so I feel like I have more to offer creatively in the world of cinema. But I have to work my way into making myself known again in some circles.”
She's made considerable headway. In the past year, she's been in a variety of films, from her supporting role in the Jennifer Aniston comedy The Switch to the emotional Mark Ruffalo film Sympathy for Delicious to her recent small part in the Robert Downey, Jr., hit comedy Due Date, where she plays a pot dealer.
“I just love doing things completely different,” she says.
It is her role as Roseanna Perry, a character in the true story of a woman who transforms herself from a high school dropout to a lawyer to win freedom for her wrongly accused brother, that is generating the very earliest of Oscar talk for Lewis.
Her role is small — only two scenes — but pivotal. Lewis masters a Boston accent and wears prosthetic rotten teeth as she embodies a damaged, embittered character who is a villain yet sympathetic at the same time.